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ASU Football Opponent Primer: Arizona Wildcats

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Arizona Spring Game Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

ASU’s 2021 Schedule

Sep. 2: vs. Southern Utah (Thu.)

Sep. 11: vs. UNLV

Sep. 18: @ BYU

Sep. 25: vs. Colorado

Oct. 2: @ UCLA

Oct. 8: vs. Stanford (Fri.)

Oct. 16: @ Utah

Oct. 30: vs. Washington State

Nov. 6: vs. USC

Nov. 13: @ Washington

Nov. 20: @ Oregon State

Nov. 27: vs. Arizona

The final chapter of the Kevin Sumlin era in Tucson concluded on December 11, 2020 after the Arizona Wildcats gave up a 70 burger to their in-state counterparts. After the infamous 70-7 Territorial Cup, where the Arizona State Sun Devils claimed their fourth straight victory in the Duel of the Desert, a new era in Wildcat football was ushered in.

Arizona’s 2020

Oct. 5, 2021. That is the last time the Wildcats won a football game, a 35-30 victory over the Colorado Buffaloes. After finishing their 2019 season on an eight game losing streak, they followed up 2020 with a winless 0-5 campaign. Kevin Sumlin’s squad trotted out the worst defense in the Pac-12, as the Wildcats gave up an average of 39.8 points-per-game.

On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats dealt with injuries as former starting quarterback Grant Gunnell missed nearly half the season due to a shoulder injury. Injuries, lack of depth and COVID-19 hindered the Wildcats as they only mustered 87 total points in 2020. After a last place finish in the Pac-12 South for the second straight year, Jedd Fisch was brought in to revamp the program.

Key Returners and Additions

Fisch wasted no time adding talent to a roster bereft of playmaking. After losing Gary Brightwell to the NFL, Fisch added former Northwestern running back Drake Anderson. Anderson, who has three years of eligibility left, trades in his Wildcats purple in black for Wildcats navy and red after spending three years in Evanston. From 2019-2020, Anderson rushed for 890 yards on 216 carries in a limited role.

After Grant Gunnell transferred to Memphis, Fisch was quick to add former South Florida quarterback Jordan McCloud, and former Washington State gunslinger and Queen Creek native Gunner Cruz. While Fisch hasn’t named any of his quarterbacks as the week one starter, whoever gets the nod will have the backing off a vastly improved defense.

Fisch and defensive coordinator Don Brown made solidifying the front seven a priority, and landed former Western Michigan linebacker and 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Treshaun Hayward. In 2019, Hayward’s last full season, he recorded 142 tackles, 10.5 of which were for loss and five sacks. Hayward helped lead the Broncos to a 7-6 record in 2019, and on top of being named the MAC defensive player of the year, he was named a second team All-American by Sporting News.

Key Losses

A key loss that legitimately aids the Wildcats is that Sumlin is no longer the head of the gridiron braintrust. Since the start of the 2019 football season, the Wildcats have allowed 37 points per game, 471.8 yards per game and have gone 4-13 while sporting the worst in-conference record going 2-12. In comparison to the rest of the Pac-12, those are the second-most points allowed over the past two years and the third-most yards allowed. While there’s no metric that measures effort, if there was the Sumlin-led ‘Cats certainly wouldn’t have scored high.

While Fisch significantly added to the quarterback room, Gunnell hit the road and transferred to Memphis. Gunnell showed flashes in limited time in 2019, completing 101 of 155 pass attempts, for 1,239 yards, nine touchdowns and only one interception. Last season, Gunnell sustained an injury in his throwing shoulder against UCLA and missed significant time.

Why ASU could win

The Sun Devils are deeper and more experienced than the Wildcats at nearly every position. The Sun Devils won not one, but two football games in 2020! While playing one less game than the Wildcats! All jokes aside, Herm Edwards has built a roster that has shown an ability to grind teams out from the run. With Rachaad White, Daniyel Ngata, and DeaMonte Trayanum, the Devils have a three-headed monster that has the potential to be one of the best backfields in the nation.

Behind center, Jayden Daniels enters his third season on the Manning award watch list (the award given to the nations best quarterback). In 16 career starts, Daniels has only thrown three interceptions and has shown an ability to beat teams through the air and with his legs. The Sun Devils also return all 11 defensive starters, as well as 10 of 11 backups. The depth and experience alone gives ASU a gaudy advantage over the Wildcats.

Why ASU could lose

Fisch has faced his fair share of critics, but he has injected life and energy into a program that had been dormant for the better half of the last decade. For a first year head coach, Fisch has done an exceptional job working the transfer portal and acquiring talent. The additions of Anderson, Hayward, Cruz, McCloud and defensive back Isaiah Rutherford should play an immediate impact on the field. Despite a team that will have to learn how to win and play together, the energy and excitement for football in Tucson has been reignited by Fisch, and you never know what can happen on a given Saturday in the desert.